Science 3 min read

Ancestral Protein Construction Leads to Medical Breakthroughs

Australian National University |

Australian National University |

Tracing enzyme evolution gives scientists the knowledge needed to create new proteins and resurrect extinct ones for various industrial and medicinal purposes.

Humans used biological catalysts such as plants to improve medicine long before they could name them or understand how they work.

Gradually, we came to know about naturally-occurring microorganisms that contain or produce specific enzymes.

Yeasts, for example, have been leveraged for thousands of years to ferment wine and leaven bread.

Although currently used in medicine, biotechnology, and many industries, the evolution of enzymes is still poorly-understood.

Read More: Plant Enzymes Discovered That Could Lead to new Drugs and Cancer Treatment

Ancestral Protein Construction: Retracing the Genealogy of Proteins

Now, a new study sheds light on the underlying mechanisms of enzyme evolution.

Biochemists from the Australian National University (ANU) published a study wherein they reveal a new enzyme-engineering technique.

The technique, called ancestral protein construction, allows scientists to look at the enzyme evolution over the millennia to the ones we have today.

Uncovering how modern enzymes work will also open the way toward bringing back the long-extinct proteins they descended from.

“This technique allows us to resurrect, in a sense, proteins that have been extinct for millions of years, so they can be studied in the lab,” said Dr. Ben Clifton who led the research. “Understanding the evolutionary processes that create new enzymes is important because we can then mimic those processes to design or engineer enzymes for our own purposes in the biotechnology or pharmaceutical industries.”

The ANU team worked on an enzyme called cyclohexadienyl dehydratase and succeeded in tracing the molecular processes that drove its evolution.

Old Enzymes for New Uses

The work from the ANU team furthers the understanding of how existing enzymes came to be. It also spurs research into engineering new types of enzymes for uses that we don’t even know of right now.

Scientists have been aware that enzymes evolve from other enzymes, and they even proved it in the lab. Yet, they didn’t exactly understand how.

Biochemists can’t construct enzymes for specific tasks because they don’t know how these biomolecules evolve to obtain new functions.

The answer to enzyme evolution seems to lie in their ancestral tree. Scientists have figured out how to go all the way down to this tree’s roots, and the door is wide open to experimental biochemistry.

The possibility of resurrecting old enzymes, or new ones tailored to accomplish specific tasks, is exciting–as the ones scientists “discovered” are already doing wonders.

Just recently, scientists reported the discovery of a plastic-eating enzyme. Once its production and deployment means are mastered, this concept raises the hope of solving the pollution of oceans, and, potentially, in a voracious way.

We could unleash these enzymes to feast on the ocean plastic that makes most of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a floating litter island off the north Pacific Ocean more than double the size of Texas.

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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